The Scientific Activist

“Ph.D. programs don’t really attract the most exceptional students,” he said. I was having dinner with a few professors and graduate students from the Oxford Department of Biochemistry last night when one of the professors made that assertion. The topic of conversation was why so many graduate students in our program seem to lack a broad knowledge of areas of biochemistry outside of their specific area of research.

Feeling slightly offended, and fueled by the copious quantities of wine we had consumed, I pointedly asked, “Have you actually seen any figures that would back that up?” He hadn’t, he conceded. He also hadn’t fully considered the more likely cause: the built-in overspecialization of both graduate and undergraduate students at Oxford.

He was probably correct to an extent, though, in that graduate school doesn’t always look like the most attractive path for a smart and motivated recent college graduate. It’s important that we continue to address that situation, particularly with better funding for graduate students, but this doesn’t in any way explain the insufficient general knowledge of Ph.D. students.

Although this was mostly a case of someone drawing a conclusion not supported by any data, it was also a cop out of sorts that avoided the real causes. Based on my experience, the primary reason for this lack of knowledge lies not within the individual students, but more so within the fundamental educational structure at Oxford and in the U.K. in general.

When a student begins working on a D.Phil. (Oxford’s equivalent to the Ph.D.) in biochemistry here, he or she hits the ground running in the lab that he or she is going to spend the next three or more years in. There’s no coursework and no laboratory rotations. Instead, there’s just a singular focus on the eventual writing of a dissertation. As biochemistry and its related fields grow and mature, individual scientists by necessity focus on increasingly specific areas of research, risking losing sight of the big picture. A graduate student in biochemistry spends his or her entire career at Oxford focused on a subject that only forms a drop in the ocean of the life sciences. It’s no wonder, then, that someone defending a dissertation in X-ray crystallography of cytoskeletal proteins might know almost nothing about the genetics of cell division.

Contrast this to the U.S., where students generally take two years of courses while also rotating through different research laboratories, conducting a small project in each, before finally settling into his or her final lab. The downside is that a Ph.D. is the U.S. takes much longer to complete. On the other hand, these students probably graduate with a more developed global perspective on biochemistry and the life science. Although one could argue that truly motivated students should seek out this knowledge on their own, it’s unfortunate that no institutional structures exist at Oxford to encourage this academic growth.

The problem at Oxford, though, starts well before graduate school. Although students at most American universities have to choose a major when they enroll, this is often not a final decision (at Texas A&M University, for example, the average student changes majors once during his or her undergraduate career) and involves only a marginal amount of specialization in the first year. On the other hand, these are the courses that a first year student in biochemistry at Oxford takes:

  • math and statistics
  • organic chemistry
  • biophysical chemistry
  • biological chemistry
  • molecular cell biology.

All students take the same courses, and there are no electives. Not only are these students not taking any courses outside of the sciences, they aren’t even exploring all of the fundamental sciences. These students would be expected to graduate with a strong understanding of biochemistry, but little knowledge of anything else.

I’ve taught a couple of labs so far since I’ve been at Oxford, and overall I’ve been impressed by the caliber of the students. They seem exceptionally self-motivated and knowledgeable for the most part, so the system can’t be all bad. On the other hand, when I talk to these students about their future plans, very few of them expect to continue on in biochemistry after their undergraduate degree is complete, which is unfortunate since they will not even receive a basic foundation in the liberal arts or any other subject besides biochemistry (I haven’t personally seen the figures, but it is common knowledge in the department that graduates are much more likely to pursue careers in fields such as law or investment banking than basic science). Many of them note that they didn’t really know what biochemistry was all about before starting their degree, and it turns out that some of them don’t really like it that much. Within such a specialized system, a change in major is not an option, unless the student wants to quit his or her degree and start over from the beginning, including reapplying to the university.

Although I would have to see more detailed statistics on the future performance of graduates of different types of undergraduate and graduate programs in biochemistry to validate my concerns, what I’ve seen has already made me worried. Regardless, instead of blaming its graduate students for their performance, the Department of Biochemistry at Oxford would do well to take an introspective look at how its fundamental structure could be at fault.


  1. #1 sas
    June 14, 2006

    I agree that many undergraduate courses at Oxford could be improved by including some unrelated modules- for a start it might give technical minded people an appreciation for the human sciences, and vice-versa, and reduce the antagonism that often exists between the sciences and arts. This might even lead to journalists having a greater understanding of science (yes, we can dream :-).

    Not all courses are overly specialised though- eg. all engineering students share a common first (and most share the second) year, before specialising in the third and fourth years, though again a few arts/humanities modules might still be beneficial.

    At the PHD level something like the Life Sciences Interface is perhaps the way forward?

  2. #2 G. Shelley
    June 14, 2006

    WEll, this is the same at most UK universities. Probably the reason why UK students don’t need to spend 2 years catching up as US postgrads do, is that their undergraduate degree is so much more intense

  3. #3 Nick Anthis
    June 14, 2006

    In regards to the Life Sciences Interface, I think that’s a really cool program, and I know a few people in it. Unfortunately, it’s only for studnets coming from the physicial sciences who want to expand into the biological sciences, but surely it’s a good model for building programs for students coming from other backgrounds.

    To address G. Shelley’s comment, the UK undergraduate degree isn’t neccessarily more intense–it’s more specific. There are definitely some advantages to this, since students coming from these universities should in general have a much greater knowledge in their specific field of study (although students from American universities often get more hands-on research experience). There’s a trade-off here, though, and I’m still not convinced that it’s worth it. Regardless, that’s much more likely to be the cause of the lack of general knowledge that the biochemistry professor was lamenting, as opposed to a problem with the quality of the students.

  4. #4 Paul Mison
    June 14, 2006

    The entire UK education system is more than a little skewed by the demands of the universities. How is it that a first year Oxford undergrad is able to jump straight into biochemistry specialisation? Why, it’s the fact that their A-levels were, almost certainly, biology, chemistry and maths, with little to no time spent outside those choices.

    I’ll admit I could be missing some of the changes that were meant to happen to “sixth form” studies circa 2000, but I doubt what looked to an outside like tinkering can have had that much of an effect.

    Given the bleating from the popular press every August when the results come along, and the reluctance of the Government to take the recommendations given to them a couple of years ago for reform of post-14 education (including broadening subject choice further from 16-18) I don’t see anything chnaging in the next few years.

  5. #5 Brinstar
    June 14, 2006

    I grew up in the United States and went to university in the UK. I started on a Biology degree (in Scotland, where university is 4 years long), but after the first year I found that I didn’t enjoy Biology as much as I thought I would. Because I was coming from a broad-based American high school education, I didn’t have the specialist knowledge that the British students, who had taken A-levels, had. I found myself fairly out of sorts in many of the labs. In order to change my course from Biology to Management, I had to start over again. I’d not taken any Arts classes at all. I had studied Biology and Geography for the most part in my first year. After switching my degree, I was able to take some of the courses that, as a Biology student, I was interested in studying but was unable to due to my specialisation (and due to the university requirements to take a specific number of science modules). For example, I was able to study Philosophy and Anthropology in addtion to my core courses in Management. Even though I took a year longer to finish my undergraduate degree, I was happier for it.

  6. #6 wond3r1
    June 14, 2006

    Having just completed the undergraduate biochemistry course at Oxford I’d say that while there is little choice this does ensure that by the end of the third year (finals part I) every student has had to cover most aspects of biochemistry. During the fourth year the projects and options allow people to then narrow down and really specialise. I’ve no doubt that for many people doing options earlier would be preferable as it would allow them to explore different aspects but only at the expense of losing core biochemistry modules.

    As for the number of people that don’t continue in the field I think that’s partially a general statement about Oxford and that the course is one of the more intense ones. I think that in that regard just have the standard 12 week rather than 8 week terms would be beneficial as the workload could be a little more spread out.

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